The Historical Museum of the city is situated next to the famous Zemaljski Muzeum, Sarajevo’s ethnographical museum founded under the Austrian protectorate and closed for unexplained reasons for years.

The well designed cement block presents the longest siege in modern European history which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996. Conceived to be a temporary event, it seems to have morphed into a permanent exhibit incarnating the official memory of those 1,425 days when the city and its inhabitants were relentlessly attacked from the surrounding hills, mainly by mortar shelling and snipers

Putting war on show is an exercise in cultural diplomacy that necessarily leads to a politically (in) correct recounting of the events, one that clearly defines the perpetrators and the victims, the winners and the losers. As in the Imperial War Museum in London, war is represented as a long episode of glorious resistance, as incarnated by the male military and presumably heroic civilians, crowned by a just and lasting peace.

This is the message that is fed to the tourists who trek up what was once known as Sniper Alley to pay their respects to this potted version of history.

Whose story, you may well ask .The city today is a scarred jumble of crumbling pock-marked buildings testifying to the succeeding waves of occupation: Ottoman, Habsburg, Communist and now what could be termed as multinational-neocolonial. The latter is characterized by hideous glass high rises,built mainly by Qatar and Saudi Arabia (with US support and, so local legend has it, laundered Balkans mafia cash) which house corporate offices and deserted shopping malls, smartish cafés blessed with Wifi and extremely convenient clean public toilets, without a doubt their best feature. No books shops or art galleries or, God forbid; museums or other such unfashionable cultural institutions, however beloved in previous times.

You encounter a similar porno-reconstruction style in Kabul and other countries theoretically emerging from war, financed by the same agents, all in the name of ‘state building’,which really means introducing and enforcing consumerism and the market economy as the only possible ideology designed to replace and cancel any other. Tourism means comparing the price of a Big Mac or (rip-off- Zara/Armani tee-shirt from one war zone to the next.

Nearly 20 years after the disastrous Dayton accords, the theoretical peace that was brokered has revealed itself for what it really is: a lethal form of modern war

We all know the consequences. Unemployment has rocketed In Bosnia (making it the highest Europe), leading to recent riots, the young intelligentsia is attempting to emigrate to any country that will take them. This is only a slightly paler disaster than what has befallen Irak, Lebanon,Libya, Afghanistan and just about every where were tall empty glass shopping centres tower over ruins. For the moment there are no terrorist attacks in Sarajevo. For the moment.

Perhaps one explanation for this recurring disaster can be found in the historical Museum in Sarajevo, in the way war is publicly retold and peace subsequently conceived. Look at the eloquent scenography. On one side, you have a few military uniforms, guns and weapons. the mandatory paraphernalia of war. Then, the largest part is devoted to daily life in Sarajevo. A stand in Markale market has been reconstructed with rusting tins of pilchards, corned beef et al. You are not told that it is officially donated humanitarian aid that is on sale. Nor are you informed that some of this included remnants of supplies from the Vietnam war.(I saw the dates on the tins with my own eyes during the siege). There are heating devices, various contraptions, even a kitchen, all rather quaint. Black and white photographs amplify the sense of remoteness.

In brief, this could have been an exhibition of Aboriginal/medieval/chimpanzee life, reduced to the folklore of an ancient tribe long extinct. Just a few artifacts where the human experience is singularly absent. To be fair, there is an ongoing video projection in English with a few female voices here and there sobbing in Bosnian and the big panels about peace and justice and how wonderfully the war was concluded by the wise powers above. The selfsame power who donated the omnipresent, reinforced plastic sheeting, marked UNHCR in blue capital letters. A label says this cost 5 million US dollars . The donors for this museum project doubtless hope that Bosnian school children will display appropriate gratitude and the visitors suitably pious admiration…

 But war does not lend itself to colonialist ethnography, reduced to picturesque folklore. Not if you have an ounce of conscience between your earphones.

The main feature of this vapid display is the total absence of women which in this case made up probably 70 percent of the civilian population trapped in the city. One may only presume that they were the ones cooking in those kitchens, shopping at that market, setting up those contraptions to heat their homes. The home front is not a secondary war space but the arena where the survival of any society played out. No word here about how women gave birth under shelling, organized their children”s education, cared for aged parents, produced birthday cakes out of mouldy rations, in brief, celebrated life and continuity in the face off continuous senseless aggression. Women are anything but passive in a war, inventing daily survival needs many more mental, emotional physical resources-than wielding a gun.

This is why the conference organized by the French NGO ‘Women in War’ in Sarajevo held on June 7 and 8 on the these themes was so important and successful. Two full days were spent discussing everything this exhibition refused to consider, mainly the place of women in armed conflict.

It is time to turn the dominant militaristic paradigm inside out, work on stamping out institutional amnesia. Excluding the female experience from the official history of the war in Bosnia has entailed the forcible exclusion of women from any valid peace process here and everywhere else. This has meant the construction of post-conflict purely on a military, masculinist basis, business as usual where warlords are made ministers, profiteers and traffickers are dubbed financiers, moved around like Playmobil figures.

The place of gender in armed conflict is not just an under-rated academic area of study which the author of this blog is trying so hard to institute as an autonomous discipline. It is the basis on which wars need to be conceptualized in order to build some semblance of peace and justice, hopefully reflected in historical museums in the future…

 

Women in War (www. womeninwar.org) is an NGO based in Paris and Sarajevo devoted to research on gender and armed conflict.

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